Tag Archives: absolution

Shriven and Ready: A Shrove Tuesday Post

O Shrieve me Shrieve me Holy Man!

O Shrieve me Shrieve me Holy Man!

The Word in the Wilderness, My new Anthology of Poetry for Lent, begins, not on Ash Wednesday, but on Shrove Tuesday with a reflection on what ‘shrove’ itself means. I thought I would share that with you on this Shrove Tuesday. If you’d like to pursue the journey further the book is available on Amazon both here and in the USA and is also available on Kindle. But if you’d like to buy it from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock. Shrove Tuesday: This is the day we think about being ‘shriven’ – confessing our sins and receiving the cleansing and release of forgiveness. The word ‘shrove’ drives from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘shrift’ meaning to hear someone’s confession, or ‘shrive them’. So Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, when he makes it to land, and needs to be released from the burden of his guilt, says to the hermit: ‘O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy Man.’ It was the duty of priests especially to hear the confession and grant forgiveness and spiritual counsel to those who were facing execution and when prison chaplains failed to do this properly, with time care and attention, there was a complaint that people were being ‘given short shrift’, which is where that phrase comes from. Here and now on this Shrove Tuesday we can take that time and care. But the whole idea of confession and absolution can seem strange and alien if it was not part of our life and culture, and sometimes daunting if it was! Sometimes it takes a poet to help us re-imagine the possibilities of being ‘shriven’, really letting go, being truly forgiven. This poem is from Seamus Heaney’s Station Island, a sequence of poems about confronting the past, letting it go, in order to be released, freed and unburdened for the journey of life. The whole sequence ‘Station Island’ is a masterpiece; but ‘XI’ is the jewel in its crown, containing as it does not only a fine emblem of sin and redemption, but also a powerful new translation of perhaps the greatest of the poems of St John of the Cross. The poem opens with the poet’s memory of having ruined a kaleidoscope he had been given as a child, by plunging it ‘in a butt of muddied water’, in his desire, even then, to see into the dark. This gift, ‘mistakenly abased’, becomes an emblem for all that is ruined and ‘run to waste’ in us. The kaleidoscope becomes an emblem of the gift of imagination itself, an instrument in which we may see refracted through the creation, the glories of God’s light. Our fall, collectively and individually has plunged this kaleidoscope into muddied water. The world we see habitually is not the true world at all, because it is seen through the sludge with which the kaleidoscope is encrusted, a sludge which Coleridge so charitably called, ‘the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude’. The question is, has the gift been ruined forever? Can the kaleidoscope surface again? Can it ever again become the ‘marvellous lightship’, the window into heaven? That is a sharp question, both for ourselves individually and for our whole culture. In this poem, Heaney suggests that it can: ‘What came to nothing could always be replenished’, and the replenishment, the restoration of vision, like the resurfacing of the kaleidoscope, is precisely the business of poetry. The monk to whom Heaney has made confession understands this absolutely; he understands that Heaney’s vocation as a poet comes from the same source as his own vocation to be a monk, and is therefore able to say, ‘Read poems as prayers’. It is not that Heaney is asked to, or would be prepared to sloganize for the Catholic Church, but rather that this cleansing of the instruments of our vision by the power of his imagination as a poet, is part of that whole restoration even in our darkness, of the vision of Truth which is the work of the whole Trinity, but especially in us of the Logos, the Word who is also the Light. This becomes abundantly clear in the poem Heaney goes on to translate, in which at last, after all his journeying, he arrives at and names the Source of that river which Milton named, ‘Siloam’s brook’, and Coleridge called, ‘Alph, the sacred river’. Perhaps we can see our own Lenten pilgrimage as a journey upstream to the source of that ‘fountain, filling running’ that is celebrated in this poem.

Station Island XI Seamus Heaney/St John of the Cross


As if the prisms of the kaleidoscope

I plunged once in a butt of muddied water

Surfaced like a marvellous lightship


And out of its silted crystals a monk’s face

That had spoken years ago from behind a grille

Spoke again about the need and chance


To salvage everything, to re-envisage

The zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift

Mistakenly abased …


What came to nothing could always be replenished.


‘Read poems as prayers,’ he said, ‘and for your penance

Translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.’


Returned from Spain to our chapped wilderness,

His consonants aspirate, his forehead shining,

He had made me feel there was nothing to confess.


Now his sandaled passage stirred me on to this:


How well I know that fountain, filling, running,

Although it is the night.


That eternal fountain, hidden away

I know its haven and its secrecy

Although it is the night


But not its source because it does not have one,

Which is all sources’ source and origin?

Although it is the night.


No other thing can be so beautiful.

Here the earth and heaven drink their fill

Although it is the night.


So pellucid it never can be muddied,

And I know that all light radiates from it

Although it is the night.


I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,

Nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom

Although it is the night.


And its current so in flood it overspills

To water hell and heaven and all peoples

Although it is the night.


And the current that is generated there,

As far as it wills to, it can flow that far

Although it is the night.


And from these two a third current proceeds

Which neither of these two, I know, precedes

Although it is the night.


This eternal fountain hides and splashes

Within this living bread that is life to us

Although it is the night.


Hear it calling out to every creature.

And they drink these waters, although it is dark here

Because it is the night.


I am repining for this living fountain.

Within this bread of life I see it plain

Although it is the night.





Filed under christianity, literature